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Havering’s air pollution increases coronavirus risk

PUBLISHED: 07:00 14 April 2020

The biggest cause of London's deadly air pollution is road traffic. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto.

The biggest cause of London's deadly air pollution is road traffic. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto.

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Havering residents are at increased risk of severe or fatal coronavirus symptoms, after decades of exposure to high concentrations of air pollution, according to official guidance.

Evidence shows pollution causes and worsens numerous health problems, including asthma. Picture: Yui MokEvidence shows pollution causes and worsens numerous health problems, including asthma. Picture: Yui Mok

In 2018, the British Lung Foundation found Havering residents were 85 per cent more likely to suffer from progressive lung diseases than the average Londoner.

The figure is due in part to Havering’s old population. Almost 19pc of its residents are over 65, compared to the London average of 11.5pc. But experts say the figures will also be due in part to the borough’s pollution problem.

Havering is one of the least polluted boroughs in London – but a 2018 council report warned: “This should not be misinterpreted to mean that Havering has good air quality and no action should be taken – as London remains one of the most polluted areas of the country.”

Public Health England found 6.2pc of adult deaths in Havering in 2018 were attributable to air pollution. The England average is 5.2pc.

Simon Birkett, founder of Clean Air in London, said some coronavirus patients would die as a result of air pollution. Picture: Clean Air in London.Simon Birkett, founder of Clean Air in London, said some coronavirus patients would die as a result of air pollution. Picture: Clean Air in London.

Poor air quality is having “a direct impact on the health and wellbeing of our residents”, a council report said, with levels of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) exceeding limits set “for the protection of human health”.

Asthma rates are “significantly worse” in Havering than the rest of London and the death rate from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is “significantly higher”.

Since 2006, the entire borough has been designated an Air Quality Management Area.

According to its most recent report (July 2019), Havering is “failing to meet the national annual mean objective for NO2”.

Andrew Rosindell MP said he hoped the pandemic would lead residents to take better care of the environment. Picture: Steve Poston.Andrew Rosindell MP said he hoped the pandemic would lead residents to take better care of the environment. Picture: Steve Poston.

Whilst pollution was decreasing overall, 11 monitored sites still had average NO2 concentrations above the legal limit of 40 microgrammes (μg) per cubic metre of air.

A monitor at The Battis in Romford town centre recorded an average concentration of 71.4μg. The average at Romford taxi rank was 64.7μg. At Rush Green Road it was 51.4μg. Gallows Corner was 50.3μg.

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Exposure to high levels of NO2 reduces lung function, increases the likelihood of respiratory illness, increases hospital admissions and causes premature deaths.

Jon Cruddas MP said the coronavirus pandemic had shown the need to invest in the health of all citizens. Picture: Andrew AchilleosJon Cruddas MP said the coronavirus pandemic had shown the need to invest in the health of all citizens. Picture: Andrew Achilleos

Government guidance says health conditions caused or worsened by NO2 exposure – like asthma, respiratory disease and COPD – make sufferers more susceptible to severe or fatal symptoms if they contract covid-19.

A recent study by America’s Harvard University found small increases in long-term pollution exposure correlated with large increases in the coronavirus fatality rate.

“Living in London, where pollution is high, will have made all Londoners more susceptible, to some extent,” said Simon Birkett, founder of campaign group Clean Air in London.

“Those who have more serious conditions will be more exposed.” Italian scientists now also believe high pollution levels may make the disease easier to catch, leaving London residents facing a double-whammy of complications.

“There is some evidence that pollution particles carry the virus,” said Mr Birkett. “So by living in an area with high pollution, you’re more susceptible because of the health impacts and you’re more susceptible because the pollution carries it.”

An investigation last week by the Romford Recorder and Clean Air in London found Havering pollution levels had fallen dramatically since lockdown began.

At Chandlers Corner, Rainham, NO2 was down by three-quarters.

“If we had taken more action on air pollution, less people might be getting the virus,” said Mr Birkett. “We should have met World Health Organisation standards in 2010, rather than, as a result of this tragedy, in 2020.”

Havering’s MPs said they hoped that after the lockdown, changes would be made.

“This whole thing has come as a huge shock and has caused everyone to rethink how they live their lives,” said Romford MP Andrew Rosindell.

“This is a terrible situation, but I think there will be lessons and long-term benefits. Certainly, the reduction of pollution has got to be a good thing... There will be pressure – and a natural willingness – to try to change the way we operate.”

“Moving forward we have to consider the best way to protect people against pandemics,” said Rainham MP Jon Cruddas. “It seems to me that improving the general health of all citizens is a good place to start.”


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